Ada Salter (1866 – 1942) by Shahina Jaffer

Ada Salter was an English social reformer, environmentalist, pacifist and a Quaker elder. She has been described as the pioneer of ethical socialism with her radical and revolutionary ideas apparent from an early age.  If Ada was born today, hers would be a name that would be revered by us all and resonate due to her many ground-breaking achievements.

Ada was born into a middle-class Methodist farming family, in Raunds Northamptonshire. Her parents were active in the temperance movement in the nineteenth century before the welfare state, advocates of temperance, and supported ideas of social consciousness and radical social change and justice.

Her social ideology was shaped in her formative years. She was active in the Methodist Church and on the radical wing of the Liberal Party. Hints of Ada’s radicalism can be picked up from newspaper reports. Ada and her sister Mary were members of the radical temperance organisations that backed trade unions and women’s suffrage. In April 1887, when Ada organised a church fund-raiser, her chosen theme was inspired by a Swiss emporium, suggesting that the neutral status of Switzerland during the war appealed to her pacifistic nature.

Her bond with liberal Switzerland continued throughout her life; she had learnt both French and German at the Ladies Boarding School she attended before it went bankrupt in 1888.

In 1896 Ada was aged 30 and had already achieved a lot; she was an experienced teacher, a school leader and an elected officer of the Wesleyan Society and Church Council. Later that year, she moved to London, probably to escape the social and spiritual confines of Raunds. It would have taken great courage to join the Sisters of the People especially given the image of the slums in the papers.

At first, she joined the West London Mission in Bloomsbury to work as a Sister of the People in the slums of St Pancras. These women did tremendous work, entering slums.  In one Bermondsey street, Mearns wrote, the bodies of nine infants had been found ‘deposited’ in a large box… while in the immediate vicinity 3,250 people lived in just 123 houses.  The sisters went to these places and encouraged the working-class women to attend classes and social clubs which empowered and supported them. It is known that Ada wore the symbolism of sisters of the people throughout her life, a memento neck scarf.

The Sisters were run by Katherine Hughes, an inspirational Christian Socialist, and in 1897 Ada transferred to the Bermondsey Settlement. By the following year she ran a number of Working Girls Clubs and held position on committees.

There she met Dr Alfred Salter who was originally from Greenwich and studied medicine at Guys Hospital London, an agnostic and socialist, known by fellow students as ‘citizen Salter’ for his political views. He engaged in medical research into infectious diseases on a farm in Sudbury (now Wembley), Middlesex.

In 1898 he became a resident at the Methodist Settlement in Bermondsey, an area of south-east London alongside the River Thames, then an area with widespread poverty. Alfred set up a practice and he charged poorer patients only a small sum and the poorest nothing at all.

Alfred and Ada had an interesting start to their relationship; Ada found it difficult to tolerate Alfred’s ‘agnosticism, political extremes and lack of commitment to Bermondsey’. It was only in her absence when Ada’s father died and she had to return to Raunds, that Alfred wrote her a letters and sort of proposed, referring to renouncing his lofty aspirations and making a commitment to both Bermondsey and Ada. This was pretty remarkable for 1899.

He writes:

‘ I have no lingering hankering after the flesh-pots of Sudbury or Guys or Harley Street….

If I practise down here amongst the working people…I shall surely need your help, your love, your support and your consultation. Without it life would be without flavour, future without hope, strife without encouragement’

It’s seems Alfred had recognised that he and Ada shared a common life purpose and similar social values, writing to her,

‘the same goal – to make the world and particularly this corner of the world happier and holier for the rest of our joint lives’

They refined their political and religious commitments and made the difficult decision to join the local Liberal Party.  In 1900, Ada, six years senior to Alfred, married him in a Wesleyan Church. The age gap would have been considered unacceptable, so the marriage certificate tries to conceal the matter. Trend-setting, the legacy the Salter’s jointly created, would in modern times be considered the epitome of a power couple.  In 1902 Ada temporarily gave up work when the couple’s only child, Ada Joyce, was born. But by 1905, Ada was back to duty entangled in a trade union dispute and in 1906 she assisted the formation of The Women’s Labour League.

She continued to flourish and became the President of the Women’s Liberal Party in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe but in 1906 she left the Liberal Party when it failed to honour its promise of granting the vote to women. Shortly afterwards, she joined the ILP (Independent Labour Party).

The ILP was the political party most supportive to the rights of women and wanted to stand women candidates, including Ada, at the next council elections. At this time Alfred was a Liberal councillor on the London County Council (LCC), and Ada’s decision to leave put him into an awkward position. In 1908 he also left the Liberals, to found an ILP branch in Bermondsey. Once again it was Ada who led the way and had blazed the trail for him to follow. Since meeting Ada, Alfred had to rethink his outlook, the phenomenon of men being more adaptive and women becoming more assertive, was known as ‘New women of 1890’.

In November 1909, to the astonishment of the press and her own party Ada was elected to the borough council for the ILP; of the sixty-four female candidates that stood, only seven got elected. Ada become the first woman councillor in Bermondsey, the first Labour councillor and one of the first women councillors in London.

Sadly the Salters experienced the impacts of poverty and disease personally.  Their only child Joyce was only eight years old when she died from scarlet fever.  Living in the heart of Bermondsey, the Salters were as susceptible to disease as the people whom they were there to help.  Her parents’ grief knew no bounds and it is said that Ada never fully recovered from the loss of her beloved daughter.

Grief stricken Ada responded to her tragic loss by becoming more active in the work of the Women’s Labour League, which she had co-founded in 1906 with Margaret MacDonald, the wife of Labour’s James Ramsay MacDonald. The WLL was not affiliated to any particular suffragist movement but Ada supported the non-violent Women’s Freedom League, led by her friend Charlotte Despard, rather than endorse the tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union led by Emmeline Pankhurst.

In 1911 the whole working population of Bermondsey went on strike for better employment conditions. This was known as the Bermondsey Uprising. Ada had in 1910 started to recruit women in the local factories to a women’s trade union organisation, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), led by Mary Macarthur. Initially it had disappointing results but suddenly in August 1911, 14,000 women walked out on strike in protest against terrible working conditions. They won. Ada was highly praised by the ILP and the WLL as the inspiration of this huge step forward for women’s rights at work (though she was only one factor) and for this, as well as for the huge organisational effort she put into the dockers’ strike of 1912, she was honoured by the trade unions which are known today as Unite and the GMB.

Ada remained active in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She was active in the ILP as an early environmentalist, and as a follower of Ruskin, she believed strongly in the value of nature to people and the importance of urban gardens. In 1913, she was re-elected to the Bermondsey Council and campaigned to convert Bermondsey into a Garden City.

Ada had always held strong pacifistic beliefs and becoming a Quaker had fortified her commitment to peace. For Ada, 1914 would have felt like a calamity. She was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and from 1916 she also worked with Alfred for the No Conscription Fellowship. Although the British government prevented her from attending the Hague Peace Conference in 1915, she managed to reach Bern, Switzerland, to attend a conference of socialist women opposed to the war. There she came up against Lenin, who was determined to get the conference to vote for armed revolution. Ada and the WLL delegate, Margaret Bondfield, stood their ground and Lenin was defeated.

At the end of the war she was amongst the British delegations to the Women’s International League congresses in Zürich and Vienna. Her international position was that of the Vienna International, which tried to mediate between the Second International (Labour) and the Third (Communist) but failed to reconcile them.

Re-elected to Bermondsey Council in 1919, Ada was appointed Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922, making her the first woman mayor in London and first Labour woman mayor in Britain. As a socialist, she declined to wear mayoral robes or the chain of office.

In 1920 She launched her famous Beautification Committee and housing campaign, demolishing the slums that could be demolished and beautifying the slums that could not. By the 1930s she had planted 7000 trees, decorated buildings with window-boxes, and filled all open spaces with flowers. Looking not only for beautification of streets but for beautification of every individual’s body, mind and soul, she organised holistic and entertaining community events, aimed at improving individual well-being. She believed that people would become truly human only by valuing nature and valuing each other. On valuing nature her famous slogan was: “The cultivation of flowers and trees is a civic duty.”

After a difficult political battle she built her beautiful council houses in Wilson Grove, where they still stand today as exemplary housing. Her electoral results were phenomenal, regularly achieving the highest vote of any councillor in London.

In 1925 Ada was elected to the LCC from Hackney. In 1932 she was elected National President of the National Gardens Guild. Finally, in 1934 she was able to spread her green socialist ideals to every corner of the capital. The Green Belt was secured by law in 1938.

Ada and Alfred remained loyal to Bermondsey throughout and In 1942, were bombed out of their home in Storks Road after refusing to leave. She died, cared for by her sisters, in Battersea, on 4 December, 1942, and was accorded a Quaker funeral at Peckham Meeting-House, where she was an Elder. There was also a memorial service at her parish church of St James Bermondsey.

How important it is to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes.’ ~ Maya Angelou


1. Books

Bourbon Creams and Tattered Dreams (The Factory Girls) Paperback – 4 May 2017 by Mary Gibson  (Author)

Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism  – 1 Jan 2016 by Graham Taylor (Author)

Bermondsey Story : the life of Alfred Salter  – 1 Jan 1995 by Fenner Brockway (Author)

Bermondsey & Rotherhithe Through Time – 15 Mar 2012 by Debra Gosling (Author)

Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Remembered (Archive Photographs) Paperback – Illustrated, 1 Sep 2004 by Stephen Humphrey (Author)

The Secret History of Our Streets: London Paperback – 26 Sep 2013 by Joseph Bullman  (Author), Neil Hegarty  (Author), Brian Hill (Author)

The History of Bermondsey. Paperback – 3 May 2010 by W. Lees. Bell (Author)

Bermondsey: Its Historic Memories and Associations Paperback – 10 Jul 2015 by Mr Edward T. Clarke (Author), Mr Michael Wood (Editor)

2. Internet Articles

3. Interview

Emma Snow – Manager of the BERMONDSEY UPRISING store

Graham & Sheila Taylor – Author of Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism Paperback